‘Keep Calm And Carry On’ May Not Work During A Pandemic

LONDON – On a recent visit to a private hospital in London, I was horrified to come across a delivery boy carrying a load of supplies without wearing a face mask. A nurse in a blue scrub stood inside the elevator, three feet from me, with his mask wrapped around his chin.

The scene at the hospital may present a particularly shocking example of how flippantly many people in London continue to cope with a pandemic that has killed more than 57,000 Britons, but it is hardly unusual.

Coronavirus cases are rising rapidly again, but shoppers regularly wander the aisles of the supermarket in our north London neighborhood of Hampstead without wearing masks. Cafes and pubs are full of people hoisting drinks nearby.

When I asked the owner of our local domestic fruit and vegetable market why, despite regulations requiring masks, he allowed an unlimited number of people to enter his cramped premises without protection, he waved me over. the hand. “We are not the police,” he said.

Every morning I take my kids to school on the public bus, where the 14-passenger limit is regularly violated with the rules for face masks. We tilt for a place near an open window.

In our international school, children must wear masks. But on my way home to the leafy streets, I see children and parents chatting happily without masks while they wait for their school doors to open. Looks like people lining up to board the Titanic.

Beyond the obvious reasons why this cavalier behavior is disconcerting, it has reinforced the widely held feeling that Britain – known to play by the rules – now operates without adult supervision. Public confidence has plummeted, with more than half of respondents to a recent survey saying the government has botched its handling of the pandemic, down from 39% in May.

Modern Britain we learn in history lessons allegedly showed its truest character during World War II, when Winston Churchill urged the nation to persevere in the face of the Blitz, Germany’s relentless bombing campaign. The people came together and endured a collective effort, the inconveniences and indignities of which were borne as the cost of the enemy’s defeat.

“The government issued thirty-five million gas masks to civilians, who transported them to work and to church, and kept them at the bedside,” writes Erik Larson in his Blitz story, “The Splendid and the Vile ”. “Strict ban rules have darkened the city streets so much that it has become almost impossible to recognize a visitor at a train station after dark.”

How did this society become this one? Or is society more or less the same, as the nature of the threat has changed, triggering a different response?

People with long memories advise against using romantic representations of the past as a starting point for lamenting the supposed decline.

“To quote a Russian proverb,“ It was a long time ago, and it wasn’t true anyway, ”said Timothy Garton Ash, a European historian at the University of Oxford.“ If you look at the True Blitz story, it wasn’t this wonderful national stereotype of people with bowler hats and rolled up umbrellas waiting patiently in queues for cups of tea.

Not everyone was so cooperative or resigned, he said, with differences in discipline from place to place.

The current crisis appears to be exacerbated by an offshoot of the very virtue celebrated in the conventional historical narrative – an admirable refusal to bow. The national mantra “Keep Calm and Carry On” seems to have been reconfigured into the mistaken notion that nothing is right.

“There’s a feeling of bravado, and not being a wimp about the disease, and you can just fight,” said Selma Dabbagh, an Anglo-Palestinian novelist who lives in north London. “There’s this idea of ​​’Don’t be a wuss, man, just keep it up.’ ‘

Preventing transmission of the virus requires rude behavior: not keeping doors for fear of getting too close to others; wear masks that obscure smiles; avoid unnecessary interactions. This sounds more poignant in England, given the extent to which social discourse is governed by mores and rituals. Giving up the conversation with the butcher is uncomfortable.

Other cultural characteristics can protect the population. “England is the only place I know where the better people know each other, the less physical contact they have,” said Mr Garton Ash.

But that sense of elimination can make it even more difficult for people here to follow the restrictions imposed to stop the virus. In what amounts to both stereotyping and observable truth, many Englishmen need the help of lubrication to bond with others. This means that closing ads is tantamount to revoking the basic human connection.

When my family moved from New York to London in 2016, we were immediately struck by how tightly everything seemed to be.

Instead of the crumbling New York subway, we encountered a well-functioning facility overseen by people in uniform who were pleasantly available for a lawyer. The post office was no hardship. Heathrow Airport was a marvel of efficiency. Competent people seemed to be in charge.

The first change in that impression came from Brexit, Britain’s puzzling, tortuous (and continuous!) Abandonment of the European Union.

In the face of warnings from business groups that Brexit was an elaborate act of self-harm, and despite a much anticipated slowdown in the economy, the political class continued, mingling in an obscure parliamentary process, never resolving completely the question of knowing comes next. The word “shambolic” has had intense training.

The experiment divided the country into two warring tribes – Leavers and Remainers – a polarized state in which the facts relating to almost everything from health care to foreign policy were reduced to props in arguments over Brexit.

This legacy of mistrust has continued as the pandemic emerged in Britain, now led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose predilection for background set design often draws comparisons to President Trump.

Mr Johnson first shed light on the coronavirus. On the same day in March that top government scientists urged the public to stop shaking hands, the Prime Minister happily told reporters he had visited a hospital treating Covid patients, “and I shook everyone’s hand ”.

Then Mr Johnson himself contracted the virus, a severe case which required intensive care at a London hospital. When he appeared, he presented himself as a modern day Churchill rallying the nation against a deadly threat.

But its policies have been widely pilloried as inconsistent and behind the curve. The rules on wearing masks did not arrive until the end of July. Schools and playgrounds remained closed when pubs reopened. With cases increasing, Mr Johnson recently ordered pubs to close at 10 p.m. but first exempted beverage establishments that serve Parliament.

My family reluctantly canceled our daughter’s 8th birthday party – an outdoor reunion with half a dozen children from the school – due to new bans on gatherings over six. It would seem like a legitimate sacrifice, without the fact that we could legally expose ourselves to dozens of strangers inside a restaurant.

One event sparked deep cynicism: the blatant disregard of the lockdown by Mr Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings, who was caught driving more than 200 miles to visit his parents during the worst of the pandemic, followed by a trip to a picturesque country town. . His elaborate and evolutionary explanations – one centered on using the drive as a chance to test his eyesight – have been widely dismissed as absurd.

Despite shrill calls for his resignation, Mr Cummings remained, backed by Mr Johnson. It was as if Mr. Churchill’s right-hand man had been caught hosting a barbecue during a nighttime German bombardment, turning on the lights to illuminate the garden.

The results of all of this – the feeling of hypocrisy, confusion, confused messages – may explain why many people break the rules.

“This is a time when you really need the government to step in and be very clear in its messages,” said Ms. Dabbagh, the novelist. “I think people would respond to messages if they were clear. Now everything is pushed on the individual to make these decisions.

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